Teaching the Marvels of Music

“Now do you see why Bach said that the music he wrote was for the ‘Glory of God Alone’?”

I’ll never forget the first time I heard Johann Sebastian Bach’s Partita in E Major for violin. It was in a late-1980s television commercial, of all things. As a young violinist at the time, it enchanted me — it was so pure, precise, and unadorned. I wondered what it must feel like to coax such sublime sounds out of a simple instrument of wood and metallic strings. (Just below, you can hear Itzhak Perlman play it far better than I ever could.)

Not long after, I mentioned the Partita in E Major in an offhand way to Norma Jean Seaton, my music teacher at the time. For a decade, she taught me to play the violin, with at least one hour-long lesson a week. She also conducted the local high school orchestra, for which I played for several years. Over the years, she methodically guided me through countless classical pieces.

It didn’t occur to me that Mrs. Seaton would follow up on such a casual remark, primarily because it didn’t occur to me that I was capable of playing the piece. But follow up she did; without telling me, she hunted down the sheet music. (Note for digital natives: in that primitive era before the Internet, it took a decent amount of time and effort to obtain sheet music. You couldn’t just print it out from, say, Google Images.) She presented it to me along with a flat declaration that I was going to play it.

And so we went to work.

Over the next few months, we soldiered through the Partita together. I found it incredibly difficult. The intonation is hard, and it must be right — there is no accompaniment, and hence no place to hide a stray note. Knowing that my teacher was always listening with a keen ear didn’t make things easier. And odd though it may sound, I felt some weight of responsibility to respect the centuries-old piece with competence.

At long last, I became proficient in performing it. One day, after I finished a particularly good rendition in her music studio, Mrs. Seaton smiled and posed the question above to me. Finally, I could understand why the answer was yes — why it was that Bach inscribed “Soli Deo Gloria,” Latin for “Glory to God Alone,” at the end of each composition.

But that experience taught me something more. I didn’t quite know it at the time, but that moment was a milestone. Despite being a not-quite-confident, somewhat awkward kid, I had set a goal; had worked hard to achieve it; had created something that didn’t exist before; and had met the high standards of a teacher who believed in me before I believed in myself. So many times over the years, when I’ve encountered a challenge, I draw on lessons like that to remind myself that I can do it and will do it, whatever “it” might be. That was Mrs. Seaton’s great gift to me.

Mrs. Seaton died early in the morning on March 15, 2016. She was 93.

What a remarkable life she had! Her obituary captures all the key details, from her interwar childhood in Parsons, Kansas to her master’s degree in music from Northwestern to her marriage to Gary Seaton, a warm and gentle soul.

A young violinist, Norma Jean Peterson.

But I’d say the key to understanding her — what truly motivated her in her teaching, and how she inspired generations of children and parents in my hometown — was the Suzuki Method, developed by Japanese musician and educator Shin’ichi Suzuki after World War II. You can read about the basic principles of the Suzuki Method here, including the ten increasingly advanced collections, or “books,” of music through which violin students progress. But the critical thing to know about the Suzuki Method is its core truth: that with love and patient instruction, every child can learn to play and appreciate music at a high level.

Mrs. Seaton became a disciple of the Suzuki Method in the early 1960s. She then helped reveal that core truth in the many children who had the good fortune to study under her in Parsons from the mid-1960s until well after her formal retirement from Parsons High School in 1991.

How successful was she? Well, if I had to name a person other than my parents who had the greatest influence on me during my formative years in Parsons (I lived there from preschool to high school), Norma Jean Seaton would be at or very near the top.

I’m far from alone. Laboring in a tiny town nestled in the southeast corner of Kansas, Mrs. Seaton made a lasting difference for generations of schoolchildren and their parents. Anyone who had the benefit of studying music in Parsons in the last third of the 20th century — a benefit as serendipitous as the geography was random — would tell you that she was as devoted and determined a teacher as they ever had. Even if they didn’t go on to pursue music professionally (and very few did), they were extremely grateful for their lifelong appreciation of music and the broader life lessons Mrs. Seaton taught them. It’s hard to fathom how much poorer in spirit we would have been had Mrs. Seaton not been who she was.

Who was she?

She was sweet. That time after my junior year recital when she raved at how I’d showed mastery of Mozart’s Violin Concerto in A Major. That time she beamed and raised her arm high in unrestrained jubilation after a superb festival performance by our orchestra. That time she sent me a note after she found out I was going to attend law school at the University of Chicago, congratulating me and urging me to take in as much of the world-class Chicago Symphony as I could. Those times late in her life when, as I would hear secondhand, she mentioned me as a student she was glad to have had the chance to teach.

Mrs. Seaton and the Parsons High School Orchestra in the spring of 1988.

She was tough. That time in high school when she tracked me down in the hallway outside the debate team’s classroom and demanded to know why I was choosing to attend a debate tournament that weekend instead of an orchestra festival. That time she stopped me in the middle of a lesson focused on Bloch’s “Baal Shem” and curtly instructed me, to put it mildly, to put more passion into the emotional second movement, Nigun. (Only after I listened to an album she bought me which contained a moving Joshua Bell performance of it did I understand what she meant.) Occasionally, I wondered why she was so hard on me — and whether it was really worth it.

Somewhat back then, and completely as I’ve gotten older, I recognized that it was worth it. She was tough because she saw the best in me and wanted to me to realize it during the all-too-brief time we would have together. This was her way of showing me that she cared about me and valued me. It was how she applied the wonderful saying by cellist Pablo Casals, which she featured in her studio:

“[W]hat do we teach our children? We teach them that two and two make four, and that Paris is the capital of France. When will we also teach them what they are? We should say to each of them: Do you know what you are? You are a marvel. You are unique. In all the years that have passed, there has never been another child like you. Your legs, your arms, your clever fingers, the way you move. You may become a Shakespeare, a Michelangelo, a Beethoven. You have the capacity for anything. Yes, you are a marvel.”

For a time, I didn’t fully comprehend that she saw all of us that way — as marvels whose talents she could help reveal with dedication and love, even of the tough kind.

But now I do. When I last saw her in 2012, I told her how grateful I was that she had done so much for me. As I expected, she downplayed her efforts. Behind her subdued smile, though, I’d like to think that she felt the deep gratification special teachers must feel when they know their former students appreciate their sacrifice, so many years later.

The last time I saw Mrs. Seaton, at her home in Parsons, KS in 2012.

On March 21, 2016, I attended Mrs. Seaton’s funeral. It was a beautiful service. I heard her pastor aptly describe classical music as a gift that “lets us pray without words.” I heard her grandsons perform pieces old and new with a fluency I know she helped develop, and of which she would have been proud. I heard one of her successors at Parsons High School describe a woman who won national and international acclaim by pioneering music education for children. I heard her daughter, a supremely talented musician in her own right, express amazement at her mother’s energy and determination. (In a more modern age, she posited, her mother would have become President of the United States. That’s a good bet.) And I heard my breath halt as her casket passed by me, flowers above rippling with the gentlest vibrato, on its way to a home of eternal melody.

Rest in peace, Mrs. Seaton. Thank you for all you did for me, for so many others — and for the glory of God alone.

Personal page of the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.

Personal page of the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.